“Where there is an observatory and a telescope, we expect that any eyes will see new worlds at once.” -Henry David Thoreau

Oh, let’s be real. While there was plenty to talk about here at Starts With A Bang, there was one thing that took over the news from everything else, the first ever discovery of gravitational waves! Sure, there were plenty of other remarkable stories, including:

For those of you who didn’t catch it, the discovery of gravitational waves was so big that I was on the news talking about them:

There are lots of great events coming up, including an online lecture to the Lowbrow Astronomers at the University of Michigan on Friday, the 19th, a talk at Hand-Eye Supply at 6 PM on March 8th here in Portland, a three-day appearance with lectures and panels at MidSouthCon in Memphis from March 18-20, and so much more over the coming Spring and Summer months!

Now, with the formalities out of the way, let’s see what you’ve had to say for our Comments of the Week!

Image credit: Don Davis (work commissioned by NASA).

Image credit: Don Davis (work commissioned by NASA).

From Omega Centauri on extinction events: “I’m not fully up to date on extinction event causes, but I have the impression that impacts are only implicated in one or two of them.”

This is very, very much the case. Some non-extraterrestrial-impact causes include the great oxygenation event, where microbial life poisoned its own atmosphere and nearly froze the world to death, theorized massive eruption/supervolcano events and the current mass extinction, which is entirely human-caused. In addition, despite the evidence of Chixulub crater and the KT boundary layer, the next best candidate (that possibly caused the great Permian extinction) shows evidence of a great crater in Antarctica.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Soloyo rodrigo under c.c.a.-s.a.-3.0, via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antarctica_Map_Wilkes_L_Crater.png.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Soloyo rodrigo under c.c.a.-s.a.-3.0, via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antarctica_Map_Wilkes_L_Crater.png.

The Wilkes Land Crater, if caused by an asteroid impact, would have been five to ten times as powerful as the dinosaur-extincting asteroid from 65 million years ago. However, there is no analogue to the KT layer in the sedimentary rock record, leading many to theorize that even that was not a giant impactor, but rather a different geophysical feature. They say that prediction is difficult, especially about the future, but trying to reconstruct the past from a scant series of mostly missing clues is pretty hard, too!

Image credit: NASA and William Crochot.

Image credit: NASA and William Crochot.

From G on what ifs: “If our star system passes through a higher-risk region of our galaxy every 26 – 30 million years, then we should be able to roughly predict the time until the next such passage.”

Does it, though? Is passing through the galactic plane a quantifiably riskier proposition than not? I don’t think it is at all. Passing through the spiral arms is likely to be a riskier proposition, but nobody talks about that. Yes, when things pass by and disturb the Oort cloud (or even the Kuiper belt), that’s potentially hazardous to us! But is that risk elevated by passing through the galactic plane?

Gif credit: Seinfeld.

Gif credit: Seinfeld.

Signs point to no. It’s important not to build a house-of-cards on an invalid premise, and that’s exactly what the notion that extinction events are periodic and due to asteroid impacts is. Get some data that proves this isn’t “Garbage-In,” and then (and only then) will we talk about what we get out.

Image credit: Lori Stiles and John Florence (University of Arizona).

Image credit: Lori Stiles and John Florence (University of Arizona).

From PJ on offset vs. non-offset telescopes: “When discussing professional telescopes of such large apertures and small focal ratios (f4 to f7), of course your comments are totally valid. For amateurs (backyarders) we do not have the luxury of such projects. The average user would be lucky to have an aperture of 8 inches or so, extending to, maybe 16. For wide field viewing, as in nebulae & extended objects, the wide field approach is preferred (fields of 2 to 3 degrees or so). When it comes to lunar & planetary, we start to look at a narrower FOV. This is where longer focal lengths come into play (f10 to f15). Using offset optics give maximum light gathering for such modest apertures and alleviate any inherrent artefacts from spider & secondary diffraction.
For the professional institutes, I could not imagine a VLT with a focal ratio of 10:1. Phew, blows the mind.”

I — a professional theorist but a very, very amateur observational astronomer (although I did once write an observational paper: hey!) — really spend almost all of my time doing wide-field viewing, either with binoculars or with my 10″ Dobsonian. Dobsonians are the least expensive way to get large-aperture views of the Universe, and wide-field eyepieces allow you to see more of the sky than anything else. But if you want to see things like individual planets, you’re better off with high magnifications, and often with alternative designs than the simplest ones.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Eudjinnius, of a diagram of Herschel-Lomonosov telescope system.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Eudjinnius, of a diagram of Herschel-Lomonosov telescope system.

When PJ talks about “focal length,” he means higher magnifications and narrower fields of view, as “long” focal length is a measure of how long a distance it takes to converge your light. The focal lengths on the Keck telescopes, by the way, are 17.5 meters, or f/1.75. If you wanted f/10 or f/15, you’d be talking optical systems that were football-field scales. Good luck fitting that inside a dome!

Image credit: screenshot from the LIGO press conference announcing the discovery of gravitational waves.

Image credit: screenshot from the LIGO press conference announcing the discovery of gravitational waves.

From Denier on gravitational waves: “If gravitational waves are detected by LIGO, doesn’t that mean theoretical models that quantize space-time (like LQG) are incorrect?”

Not at all! What appears as ripples of radiation in General Relativity is identical to a spin-2, massless graviton traveling at the speed of light, and so it’s the other way around: if there were no gravitational waves, that would mean quantum gravity was incorrect. One of the interesting things that came out of this was that, based on the properties of the ripples that LIGO did see, we can constrain that if the graviton does have a mass, it’s less than ~10^-22 eV, or about 10^28 times lighter than the electron. This is the best limit on the masslessness of the graviton ever, which further confirms our idea that, at some level, gravitation must be a quantum theory.

Image credit: H.M Courtois, D. Pomarede, R.B. Tully,Y Hoffman, and D. Courtois Cosmography of the Local Universe.

Image credit: H.M Courtois, D. Pomarede, R.B. Tully,Y Hoffman, and D. Courtois Cosmography of the Local Universe.

From Ragtag Media off-topic but on the great attractor: “Can you good people direct me to some more authoritative reading on this ”Great Attractor”?”

There were some basic links provided, so here’s my run-through, as quickly as possible:

  • You can estimate the masses and positions of everything in our nearby Universe, and calculate what their gravitational pulls are on everything else.
  • When you do this, you find that the cosmic motions we observe are “off” by quite a bit: there appears to be an additional, unexplained peculiar velocity flow towards a region of sky in the constellation of Centaurus.
  • Because we don’t see the mass but assume it must be there, we’ve given it a name: the Great Attractor.

It was assumed that one of a number of clusters (including, at one point, the Centaurus cluster) was the cause of this, but in 2000 there was a paper by a team of seven astronomers (awesomely dubbed the “Seven Samurai”) that showed the origin of the peculiar velocity was unknown. We are still searching for this cause and this mass, and there’s a good chance that it’s aligned with the plane of our own galaxy, which we have extraordinary difficulty seeing through. So that’s where we are today on the Great Attractor story.

Image credit: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger B. P. Abbott et al., (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration), Physical Review Letters 116, 061102 (2016).

Image credit: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger B. P. Abbott et al., (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration), Physical Review Letters 116, 061102 (2016).

From Paul Dekous on LIGO’s discovery: “It is clear that he measured a vibration on earth, but I find it a little strange that he knows straight away and exactly that it are 2 black holes with clearly defined masses such and such, and all this from a 1st observation.”

This is exactly why theorists calculate models! The lines you see in the bottom panels that are labeled with “numerical relativity” are exactly these calculations. The models have been calculated for all sorts of different mass and orbital possibilities, and the fact that what we saw matched what we predicted told us:

  • The mass of each progenitor black hole.
  • The timescale/timetable of each orbit during the merger.
  • The amount of energy released during the merger.
  • The final mass of the end-state black hole.
  • And — most importantly — it gave us a measure of how well the theory agreed with what we saw.

The last one turned out to be “perfectly, to the limit of our equipment.” You see, we already had the theory of this worked out: it just came about as a consequence of Einstein’s relativity. The rest was a lot of hard work, and what appears to you as “a little strange” is the result of decades of hard work by over a thousand individuals.

From Barzini out of left field: “How come we have no video of the entire earth spinning?”

Here you go:

Pretty neat, don’t you think?

Image credit: no idea. Sorry!

Image credit: no idea. Sorry!

From Sinisa Lazarek on the importance of the LIGO discovery: “what I don’t understand is how will this usher a new age in astronomy? What can we effectively “observe” that we couldn’t before? Anything about early universe seems too far away and too faint to get anything tangible.”

Okay, okay. I want you to imagine that for all of your life, it was overcast and cloudy. You never saw the Sun, the Moon, the stars, a planet, or any patch of sky. Just clouds. Then one night, the clouds cleared, and you saw your first object. It happened to be a planet, and you didn’t just see it, you saw it so well that you realized it had rings, satellites, bands on it and more. And then it clouded over again.

That’s what LIGO was like: for the first time, yes, we saw gravitational waves. But what we learned from them was something we have no other way of learning: we learned about black hole mergers! We learned how much mass gets turned into energy during one; we learned that the power emitted during a merger can (briefly) out-shine all the stars in the Universe; we learned that ripples in space obey Einstein’s GR. With other missions — like LISA or BBO — we’ll be able to learn even more. With more stations like VIRGO and CLIO, we’ll hone in on the position of these objects even better. It’s an incredible time for astronomy, and an incredible time to be alive.

Image credit: Bohn et al 2015, SXS team, of two merging black holes and how they alter the appearance of the background spacetime in General Relativity. Image credit: Bohn et al 2015, SXS team, of two merging black holes and how they alter the appearance of the background spacetime in General Relativity.

Image credit: Bohn et al 2015, SXS team, of two merging black holes and how they alter the appearance of the background spacetime in General Relativity.

From Adam on black holes and information: “If people are worried about information paradox as it relates to the immensely slow rate of Hawking Radiation from a black hole (what was it, one photon lost in a trillion years?), how does it relate to losing 3 solar masses worth of energy in 20 milliseconds?”

What information is encoded in gravitational radiation? That’s the real question, and until we can measure it better — which will take a large improvement in our technology and our understanding — it’s pretty hard to answer that question! But yes, people should worry.

From Michael Kelsey, who’s often a deluge of useful information: “There are several points which address the naive and mispaced skepticism in these comments.

1) The signal amplitude (that is, the dimensionless strain) depends only on the distance to the source (and it falls like 1/D, rather than 1/D^2), not on the object masses.

2) The frequency leading up to the inspiral is just twice the orbital frequency, and depends on the two masses. There is a power-law relation which connects the product and sum of the masses.

3) The rate of inspiral, and hence how the frequency changes during the signal, also depends on the two masses, but in a different way. Combined with (2), this allows extraction of both masses individually.

4) The frequency _after_ the merger (the “ringdown” frequency) depends only on the final mass, and is an independent measurement from (2) and (3).

5) The peak frequency at the end of the inspiral tells you directly how far apart the two objects were. Combine that distance with the masses from (2) and (3), and even an ingornantly skeptical ass-hat can compute the densities of the two objects, and compare that density with, for example, stars, planets, or neutron stars. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to do that trivial calculation for the case of 30 solar masses and a minimum separation of about 350 km, and to report what kinds of objects might have that density.

6) The specific relationships for (2), (3) and (4), along with the detailed shape of the waveform, also depend on the black hole spins, and how they align with the orbit. Those details allow information about the spins to be extracted by comparing the measured waveform to computed templates.”

Image credit: ESO.

Image credit: ESO.

From Rick on the merger: “Was a short gamma ray burst associated with this merger?”

I wish, but the best answer is maybe! Unfortunately, the primary cause of short gamma ray bursts are thought to be neutron star mergers, which are out of the mass (and hence, frequency) range for LIGO; the causes of long GRBs is thought to be supernova events, which might be out of LIGO’s amplitude range. Black Hole mergers emit lots of energy, but it’s expected to be in the form of gravitational radiation. GRBs could arise, though, from the material around the black holes during the merger; they’d be expected to be very weak. Such a signal was in fact noticed by the Fermi satellite, as Paul Dekous points out, but that signal is not as robust as we’d hope for.

I will remind everyone, however, that the expected event rate for this type of merger is that LIGO should see between 2-5 per year of ~20-to-50 solar mass black holes merging with other 20-to-50 solar mass black holes, to say nothing of the other events it hopes to see. Please, please stay tuned!

Image credit: Moyan Brenn of flickr, under c.c.-by-2.0, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/8994313260.

Image credit: Moyan Brenn of flickr, under c.c.-by-2.0, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/8994313260.

And finally, from Ragtag Media on chocolate: “You want a good Chocolate story, go read up on that great (sic) America .Milton S. Hershey who founded the Hershey company.”

I have been to Hershey, PA, and I’ve been on that tour! (They only gave out Hershey’s kisses at the end, FYI, as of 1990-whatever when I went.) However, I will point out that Hershey’s chocolate no longer contains enough real chocolate to be useful in the chocolate making process I detailed. Wax and fillers are your enemy; cocoa butter and cocoa solids are your friends, along with sugar and (perhaps) milk, if that’s the way you roll. That’s it!

Thanks for a great week, everyone, and see you back tomorrow for more wonders of the Universe!

Comments

  1. #1 Ragtag Media
    United States
    February 15, 2016

    Thanks Ethan for the info.

  2. #2 Chris Mannering
    February 18, 2016

    “The Wilkes Land Crater, if caused by an asteroid impact, would have been five to ten times as powerful as the dinosaur-extincting asteroid from 65 million years ago. However, there is no analogue to the KT layer in the
    sedimentary rock record, ”

    the great extinctions have many strange attributes that are not being addressed, in literature nor theory. There is awareness of that mind you. No one thinks it’s as simple as rocks hitting earth.

    What you say above is erroneous though. The K-T impact has its signature due to the location it impacted, which has a lot of non-standard geology and materials.

  3. #3 Chris Mannering
    February 18, 2016

    “I will remind everyone, however, that the expected event rate for this type of merger is that LIGO should see between 2-5 per year of ~20-to-50 solar mass black holes merging with other 20-to-50 solar mass black holes, to say nothing of the other events it hopes to see. Please, please stay tuned!”

    is there any chance of some comments about this matter in conjunction with the story of a short while back regarding an eerie silence. What happened to the eeiry silence?

  4. #4 G
    February 18, 2016

    “It’s an incredible time for astronomy, and an incredible time to be alive.” YES!

    Layperson speculations & questions dep’t:

    Assume you have a number of different types of solid materials, all shaped into rods: for example glass (a supercooled liquid), steel, wood, brick (ceramic), concrete (amorphous crystal matrix), igneous rock (same if I’m not mistaken), and quartz crystal (periodic crystal, “true solid”).

    Assume you do the inverse square law calculations to figure out the correct distance from an anticipated black hole merger event, at which some of these materials should break if subjected to known quantities of force e.g. concrete at compression of 3,500 pounds per square inch or tension of 1,500 pounds per square inch.

    Now your black holes merge and emit gravitational waves that represent an enormous quantity of energy, to which your materials samples are subjected.

    Is the following correct?: I would expect that the materials would not be damaged, because the entirety of spacetime within which they exist, is being subjected to alternating tension and compression, rather than the materials in isolation being subjected to these forces.

    If that’s correct, then I would think it possible to build an observing platform that could operate at some arbitrarily close distance to a black hole merger, and remain intact despite being subjected to high intensity gravitational waves. The threat to any such platform would not be the gravitational waves, but other emissions such as gamma rays, heat, etc. Yes?, no?, or not even wrong?

    Lastly, how often do we expect to observe high-energy gravity wave events within about 5,000 to 10,000 LY of our position in the Milky Way?

    (Anyone who’s familiar with my usual questions here probably knows why I’m asking: looking for interesting experiments that may become possible with an interstellar civilization that spans a fairly large distance in our part of the galaxy. Clearly the example of rods made of various materials is pretty crude compared to what could actually be achieved with careful consideration of materials to be tested, but it describes the rough idea. Observing platforms close to various types of astronomical events could yield certain data that might be harder to get some other way.)

  5. #5 PJ
    Perth, west Oz
    February 18, 2016

    How fast would you expect to travel to these ‘events’ even if you could predict their whereabouts? 🙂

  6. #6 Ragtag Media
    United States
    February 19, 2016

    PJ, How fast can you travel to these events in your mind?
    In fairness it’s not really traveling, but an awareness of what’s going on from one sector of the universe to the other.

    Still quite a chasm of the universe to traverse understanding what’s happening here AND there at the same time.

  7. #7 PJ
    Perth, west Oz
    February 19, 2016

    It takes no time (essentially) in mind mode, however, G was discussing getting a whole pile of sensors to make an observational platform near a GW event. Who could predict when or where such an event might occur? Bit of a waste, I would think, Tex.
    🙂

  8. #8 Michael Kelsey
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
    February 19, 2016

    @Chris Mannering #3: You asked, “is there any chance of some comments about this matter in conjunction with the story of a short while back regarding an eerie silence. What happened to the eeiry silence?”

    They are different, but related, things. LIGO is sensitive to relatively high-frequency gravitational waves, from ~20 Hz up to a few kHz. Those are going to be generated by low-mass compact objects in very tight orbits (neutron star binaries, stellar-mass black hole binaries, stellar-mass NS-BH binaries, asymmetric supernovae, etc.).

    The “eerie silence” reports came from a very different kind of GW search, using a collection of pulsars and looking for coordinated “glitches” in their precise timing. Such glitches, if coordinated and of the right structure (i.e., not just a one-off step up or down in period), could be due to very LOW frequency gravitational waves (and by LOW, I mean microhertz or nanohertz, one cycle every few years!).

    Such waves would be generated by much more massive compact objects, such as the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, in orbit around one another. We have one candidate (from optical observations) for such a system, OJ 287. It has an 11-12 year period, and if it is a SMBH binary, should produce gravitational waves around 5.3 nHz.

    The “eerie silence” reports arose because the initial data from one of the pulsar timing array experiments saw no signals. From that, they could set a limit on SMBH binaries out to some distance, and that limits seems (to the authors) to be lower than it should be from our understanding of galaxy formation.

  9. #9 Wow
    February 26, 2016

    Ethan, sorry to say here, but you’re almost entirely wrong in your claims on telescopes.

    Focal length determines the aFOV. A 40mm eyepiece in an f5 10″ scope gives a smaller field of view than the same eyepiece in an f10 3″ telescope. Work out the focal length of both and see why.

    And the maximum useful eyepiece focal length depends on the exit pupil of the eyepiece (the focal length of the eyepiece divided by the focal ratio should be less than about 5mm or you’re unable to use the extra light gathered since it hits your iris not your retina.

    So your 10″ dob might as well be 6 inches if you used a 40mm eyepiece on it, the maximum fully functioning size is about a 25mm. And given the only reason for low-magnification and high aperture scopes is for dim deep sky objects, you really don’t want to be wasting half the light you collect, so that 25mm EP really is a limit not to breech.

    And the maximum amount of sky depends on the eyepiece diameter (1.25 or 2 inches) divided by the focal length (not ratio), since vignetting would make any sky outside a certain angle hit the side of the scope eyepiece tube rather than go down to the eyepiece. Not even a wide angle EP will help with that.

    For wide views, you want less than 500mm focal length, for which your absolute geometrically possible field of view would be 6 degrees for a 2″ eyepiece. And that with SERIOUS vignetting for the outer third. A 32mm EP gives 15x mag and a comfortably 4 degree view and is fully used at about F6-7. If it can take 2″ fittings, you can stretch it to 5 degrees tops with an extra wide EP.

    A 1m focal length halves those numbers. A 250mm focal length doubles them (but you get huge problems with geometrical distortion then).

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